Lured by savings and cash, many American schools are going solar

Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter


When the Dublin City School District in central Georgia broke ground on a new solar project earlier this month, school officials celebrated more than just sustainability. The new solar array, to be completed in June, will also save some serious, much-needed cash.

Over the next 25 years, the panels are expected to save the district $3.5 million, said Dublin City Schools Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter. By June 2014, Ledbetter expects the district will save $100,000 — enough to cut the number of teacher furlough days from 10 to nine.

This means “another school day for our students and another day for our teachers to work, which is a good thing,” he said.

With an increasing number of grants and other funding available, more American public schools like Dublin High are looking to solar as a way to save money, with the added perk of acquiring an in-house renewable energy science lab.

The number of solar schools in the United States is not yet known, but industry experts say they have noticed a rising trend.

According to numbers provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), about 180 schools in California have installed solar, as well as around 250 in New Jersey and 40 in Arizona. Last year, Hawaii’s Department of Education announced plans to put solar on all the state’s public schools (ClimateWire, Nov. 2, 2012).

Good locations, plenty of rooftop

“This is absolutely growing,” SEIA representative Susan DeVico said, “without a doubt.” DeVico said SEIA is hoping to release a report on solar in schools this September.

Jim Cahill, regional vice president of California-based solar company SolarCity, estimated that schools now make up half of the company’s commercial clients. “It’s a growing market for solar companies like ours,” Cahill said.

In recent years, the education sector has expanded to constitute 12 percent of U.S. installations for Conergy, a solar supplier headquartered in Germany. Physically, schools are ideal solar customers, explained Conergy spokeswoman Jaymie Fuentes. Many schools have land and buildings well-suited to solar arrays, allowing for headache-free installation. Also, schools often have large parking lots, making them good candidates for carport solar systems.

“When we think about schools, we think about buildings that are square, flat and have a lot of property surrounding them,” Fuentes said. “That does make them very good for solar. And they typically don’t have a lot of trees … so there’s not going to be a lot of shading issues.”

Several factors have spurred the increase in schools deploying solar, but tough economic times are the main driver. Schools are still facing decreased funding as a result of the 2008 recession, and according to Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, utility bills are the second-highest expense for school districts, after teacher salaries.

“The economic downturn has prompted school districts to really investigate how they can reduce their energy expenses,” Gutter said.

More affordable deals

Until a few years ago, the high cost of materials and installation made solar power unattainable for schools. But government grants and the growth of leasing options and power purchase agreements (PPAs) have made it possible for many schools to greatly reduce or even eliminate upfront costs.

PPAs are arrangements where a property owner like a school district allows a solar services provider to own, install and maintain a solar array on its land. The school agrees to purchase the power generated from the solar array at a fixed rate for a certain period of time, and these power rates are often cheaper than conventional utility service.

Justin Barnes, senior policy analyst at the North Carolina Solar Center, said that third-party ownership was likely the greatest boon for schools financing solar projects.

Also, a third party “has a very clear incentive to make sure that the system operates well and is maintained over time,” said Barnes, which is a big advantage for schools not wanting to worry about upkeep.

The Irvine Unified School District in Orange County, Calif., entered into a 20-year PPA with a solar company in 2010, installing a 1,900-kilowatt system at 12 schools. According to a report by the Environment California Research and Policy Center, the district saved $243,000 by May of last year.

Another important economic factor for solar schools is the ability to access net-metering credits. This allows schools to route excess electricity back onto the grid, receiving credit and sometimes even payment from utility companies for the energy their solar system creates. Michelle Kinman of Environment California called net metering “the key to making solar more affordable for schools,” saying this policy has singlehandedly driven California’s rapid growth in this area.

“It’s all about bill offset,” explained David Vincent, a project development manager for Conergy. “Our biggest-producing months are summertime, and for most schools, that’s when the energy usage is lowest.”

‘Cherry on top’ for energy-efficient schools

If schools combine solar with other energy-saving measures, the cost savings can be remarkable. For Richardsville Elementary School in Bowling Green, Ky., the first “net zero” school in the United States, adding a solar array to an already ultra-efficient building design resulted in a check for more than $37,000 from its electricity provider last December.

But according to Jay Wilson, energy manager for Richardsville Elementary’s school district, the school is experiencing more than just financial benefits from its green energy system. Richardsville, a rural school that serves about 500 students, has its own energy team of fourth- through sixth-graders, who often host field trips for students from other schools.

“The kids have been using the environment itself as an educational platform to teach other students,” Wilson said. “They’ve been very interactive with the building, utilizing it to its fullest extent.”

Gutter, of the Center for Green Schools, said that most solar schools she has encountered use the panels as a teaching tool. “What’s the point of putting solar on a school if you’re not going to utilize it as an opportunity to educate kids about one of the critical energy sources of the future?” she asked.

Gutter was also quick to point out that solar is just one component of Richardsville Elementary’s energy-efficient design, describing solar as the “cherry on top” for any school making efforts to cut utility costs.

Before turning to solar, Gutter recommended that schools first look at small ways to cut their electricity use, like installing more energy-efficient windows and light bulbs and turning off lights and computers when they are no longer needed. According to a report by the Department of Energy, a quarter of national school spending on energy could be saved through better energy management.

“If your school is an energy hog, then putting solar on your school doesn’t make it stop being an energy hog; it just means that you’re using more renewable energy,” Gutter said. “Solar panels are a complement to energy efficiency, but they are not energy efficiency themselves.”

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